After each new frightening mass shooting an overly familiar cycle often ensues: Reporters (including me) try to unpack the possible motivations of a suspected shooter by putting together clues from his social media accounts and online postings, before everything is deleted from the internet. We do this in the hope that in the months leading up to the attack there will somehow be a window into their mindset, or at least get us closer to answering the ultimately unanswerable question: Why?
But this approach involves potentially dangerous unintended consequences. At least 49 people were killed Friday in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and like clockwork, the cycle began almost immediately. This time it was a bit different. The alleged shooter himself had given the world more answers and possible motives for his own actions than the Internet seemed to know.
Hours before the attack, the alleged shooter turned to Twitter and 8chan ̵
The Internet has done just that. The bloody first-person Facebook video of the shootout quickly became viral and spread like wildfire on social media platforms before platforms could lead to it. Since then, experts, analysts and cybercriminals have publicly split and interpreted every line of his long manifesto, along with his equally vicious social media presence, causing the public discussion to resemble a series of right-wing rabbithic key words.  It was not necessary for cybercriminals to track down their social media accounts and search for clues while publicly spreading their existence: as expected, they were filled with more provocative explanations for their actions. Whitney Phillips, a Data and Society researcher specializing in troll culture and the intensification of extremism on the Internet, was "a very clear example of media manipulation."
"The goal of media manipulation." As an act, it is to achieve the greatest possible coverage, including intense concentration on the offender, "says Phillips. "When journalists think about the motives and all the details of that person's life, even if the reporter is disgusted with their actions, that person is still the protagonist of the film – and that is their goal: to be the central figure in the film play.
When we talk about the actions of extremists – especially those with a strong online presence – these tendencies tend to regard their statements and assertions as pointless. It makes sense: If someone regularly tweens links to the Daily Stormer and interacts mostly with neo-Nazis and white supremacists online, one can assume that they are likely to share those views. However, this approach does not take into account the individual's inclination to media manipulation.
In the case of the Christchurch shooter, Phillips says, he showed "a confident awareness" of the Internet's tendency to spy on a suspected shooter reviewing history for clues, "which makes the choice to jump so incredibly dangerously at the behest of the manipulator."
More Great WIRED Stories